COVID Shutdowns and Masks

Many are hysterical over the second COVID wave that has hit a number of states, and governors are responding with harsh shutdown orders. Here in Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz blames our citizens for not wearing masks, deeming it self-evident that if his brilliant anti-viral strategies are not working, the fault must lie with us. That is, to the extent that the fault does not lie with our neighboring states; the Sturgis motorcycle rally, along with Wisconsin’s more laissez faire approach, has assumed a Goldstein-like level of villainy in the Walz administration’s press briefings.

What is really going on? This map, from the New York Times, shows new cases per 100,000 people over the last week:

It is pretty obvious what is happening. The Wuhan flu is surging in the Midwest, especially the Upper Midwest. Why? Because the weather has gotten colder. The cold and flu season is under way. The states where cases are rising fast cover the gamut from harshest restrictions (like Minnesota and Illinois) to least intrusive (South Dakota). These factors–shutdowns and mask mandates–make no apparent difference. There aren’t so many new cases in the Northeast, where the weather is also getting colder, I assume because those areas where hit much harder earlier this year.

Note, in particular, that Tim Walz’s repeated assertion that Minnesota’s lax neighbors are dragging his state down is ridiculous. It would be at least as easy to argue, from the data, that Minnesota is infecting neighboring states. But, as Walz says, “It’s not about numbers. It’s not about data. It’s about neighborliness.” In other words, he just makes stuff up.

Mask wearing is a particular focus of social posturing these days. In many parts of the country, venturing outdoors without wearing a mask risks being accosted and yelled at by strangers. But is there actually any correlation between wearing pieces of cloth over our faces and rates of COVID infection? It doesn’t seem so.

This map, from Carnegie-Mellon University, shows the current percentage of people who wear masks most or all of the time while in public, based on Facebook surveys–which are certainly not infallible, but are the best data I know of:

If you compare the states in these two maps, there is no evident correlation between mask wearing and new Wuhan infections. In particular, Tim Walz’s repeated assertion that Minnesotans are letting him down is shown to be ridiculous. According to the Carnegie-Mellon survey, Minnesota has a 93% rate of face masking, one of the highest in the country, which doesn’t appear to prevent it from having a higher new-case rate than Wisconsin or the Dakotas. In truth, though, mask wearing doesn’t seem to vary much–from 96% in New York and Massachusetts to 79% in South Dakota and 75% in Wyoming, states that have never had a mask mandate.

In my opinion, the current surge in COVID cases is a good thing. The virus needs to work its way through the population, and delaying its progress, if that is even possible, can only increase the damage done by the virus and the measures taken to “fight” it. Meanwhile, there is little reason to think that the supposedly urgent restrictions being put on our freedoms are doing any good, even if we assume that slowing the spread of the virus is desirable.

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